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The Ugly Sister, or, How Edith Learned Not to Believe in Fairy Tales

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Once upon a time there were three sisters. When they were little, their mother used to read them fairy tales. Edith loved stories about princesses and witches best, with wicked schemes and beautiful gowns and happily ever afters. She would crowd close to her mother's knee to hear all the familiar stories read in soft, comforting tones. To Edith, her mother was like the queen in a fairytale. Granny, with her fierce stare and elaborate feather hats, was the wicked witch; Papa a cheery woodcutter who would slay any manner of wolves.

As she grew older, though, Edith began to notice a pattern. The eldest children inherited the best of everything, while it was always the youngest child who was the bravest and most beautiful. Never the middle child. The middle child was always only the ugly sister.

One of Edith's favourite fairy tales was the story of the Sleeping Beauty. The twelve fairies wished good qualities on the new-born princess: beauty, grace, intelligence, bravery, wit, patience. It was all very well for the princess, being an only child, but Edith couldn't help feeling that between the three Crawley girls, the advantages had been bestowed quite unequally. Sybil had more kindness and empathy than any one person had a right to, for one thing. Mary had the lion's share of wit and cunning. Edith couldn't help but feel she had not been given her fair allocation of beauty and luck.

 

When she grew too old for fairy stories, Edith began to read novels. She read Pride and Prejudice at twelve and felt a curious sympathy with Mary Bennet, alongside a burning dislike of her, the way we always dislike those we fear we will become.

Two things mattered when you were the daughter of an Earl: beauty and accomplishments. Chubby and pink cheeked, Edith knew she was lacking in the first in comparison to her sisters. She turned her attention to her studies, but it was painfully apparent that she was neither as sharp as Mary nor as clever and inquisitive as Sybil. Her needlework was passable, her French and German tolerably competent, her musical ability somewhat lacking, her penmanship, according to her tutors, "stout, but not inspired". 'Stout' is a burdensome description for a stocky young girl, and Edith suffered agonies of inadequacy throughout her girlhood.

It isn't something she looks back on with pride, but Edith learned at an early age to be spiteful. To make a play for her governesses' and parents' attention by carrying tales, blowing out her sisters' candles to make her own shine brighter. If Mary hadn't risen to this bait, Edith might have grown out of the habit sooner. But Mary only became all the more cutting, delighting in rubbing her younger sister's nose in her own failings, the thorns of resentment growing up between them year in, year out, strangling any natural sisterly affection.

 

Edith's resentment of Mary might not have survived so long into adulthood if it hadn't been for Mary's persistent habit of failing to appreciate and even throwing away all of the privileges to which she was born. Ruining the white gown Edith would have longed to look good in, turning down invitations to parties Edith would have given her right arm to be invited to – these were adolescent affectations that would have been forgiven and forgotten in time. Even teasing the under gamekeeper who was head over heels for Mary by telling him that Edith had a fancy for him, mortifying them both quite spectacularly, was not a crime that couldn't be gotten over with maturity. (Percy had been dismissed not long after).

But then there was Mary's engagement to Patrick. It wasn't so much that Edith was in love with him, but that Mary wasn't. She could have lived with him choosing her older, cleverer, prettier, more eligible sister. She'd had a lifetime of training in how to accept being second – or even third – best. If Mary had loved him, she wouldn't have been happy, but she would have been resigned. But Mary hadn't cared for him, not really. She'd hardly smiled at the family dinner in which their engagement was shared with her sisters and grandmother. Hardly shed a tear when they'd received the telegram to say that Patrick was most likely dead. And that was something Edith couldn't forgive.

 

The good end happily and the bad unhappily; that was what fiction was supposed to mean, Edith knew. But as the years passed and her own and they lived happily ever after, the end seemed to be ever out of reach, Edith was forced to consider the possibility that not only was she the least pretty and the least popular, but that perhaps she wasn't all that good, either. It couldn't be that she had done anything so very much worse than Mary, though, and she'd managed to get her fairytale ending. Perhaps it truly was that beauty was the only virtue worth having, after all.

With her sister driving away the man she felt sure would propose, and then being jilted at the altar by the same man some six years later, Edith thought it was probably safe to say that she was cursed by some really quite shocking bad luck.

When she discovered that Mr. Gregson -- Michael -- was married, Edith was too weary to be surprised. She wouldn't have expected anything else.

For all her childhood love of fairy tales, Edith had never imagined herself as the heroine of a gothic romance, but she found she had somehow gone from Mary Bennet to Jane Eyre in reverse: left at the altar and involved with a man with a mad wife. But the prosaic reality of loving a married man in the 1920s was far from romantic. And she wasn't as good as Jane Eyre.

 

Edith wondered, as Michael slipped quietly out of her bedroom, how she had become so very like Mary after all.

 

It was six years before Michael's wife passed away. It is an awful thing to be glad of someone's death, even someone you've never met – perhaps especially someone you've never met. Edith thought of Mary at Lavinia's funeral, how she'd despised her sister, then. Now, she knew that things were never so simple. It was a violent world they lived in, with its wars and diseases, when good people could die in boat accidents or in childbirth. Maybe it wasn't so very wicked to snatch at the happiness such accidents could sometimes leave in their wake. It was either that or spend an entire life in mourning.

The wedding was a quiet affair, far from the fairytale ending of her childhood fantasies. Edith wore a cream two-piece and carried a modest bunch of flowers, more for the sake of little Sybil, who took her duties as bridesmaid very seriously.

Mary was the first to embrace her, after. Maybe they never would truly get on, but they understood each other far more, these days. Perhaps it was that had Sybil bequeathed a few of her better qualities to each of them. Perhaps it was only that in growing up and growing old, one learned to hold on to what one has. Mary, well into her thirties, was no longer the beauty and Edith felt she was no longer the ugly sister, either.

Now, she had been cast into a new role, that of the wicked stepmother.

Edith was fiercely glad Michael's children were too old for fairy tales.